At the Royale, the night is rolling along with nary an asshole or drunk in sight. Just a handful of eaters and drinkers watching the Cardinals, listening to the DJ (early R.E.M.), basking in the glory of freshness. It's still early, but so far the signs are good. No storms on the horizon. Outside the dusk glows gold.
We're reading alone at the bar, Where Dead Voices Gather by Nick Tosches. It's about minstrelsy. We're drinking a Subcontinental and holy crap is it good.
A few months ago we spoke of a secret Manhattan bar called Milk and Honey, which uses fresh-squeezed juices in its cocktails. Rather than squirt grapefruit from a spigot, Milk and Honey coaxes fluid from the fruit itself. Provided with that and the vodka, even a drunken hoosier could make the best frickin' greyhound you'll ever have. Bartenders all over America have (finally) figured out what the restaurant world rediscovered in the '90s: With freshness comes flavor. People seem to like flavor.
As with all trends, St. Louis is bringing up the rear, but that doesn't make this Subcontinental any less exquisite: cucumber juice, Bombay Sapphire gin, fresh lime, Cointreau and sugar, blended into a velvety nectar. The cucumber and lime tame the gin without killing it, the Cointreau adds depth. The drink is a pure summer delight, like skinny-dipping during a heat wave.
It's one of many expertly imagined cocktails at the Royale, the brainchild of impresario Steven Fitzpatrick Smith. The bar is a natural extension of his personality: flashy but not crazy. Perhaps you know Smith from his Hoosierweight boxing matches, or his political advocacy, or his smile, all of which have earned him a legion of friends.
Smith's waltz into the booze biz arrives with fresh-squeezed juices: apple, pear, cucumber, pineapple, lime, lemon, orange. He delivers them in drinks adapted from the old standards, renamed to reflect his love of St. Louis. There's the Holly Hills (a daiquiri variation, with rum, lime, sugar and maraschino juice), and more adventuresome mixtures like the South Side Snob (Maker's Mark, Stoli Ohranj, triple sec, orange juice) and the Mayor (which harnesses a Lebanese anise-flavored liqueur). His dozen-odd martinis, all of which are identified by aldermanic ward, avoid the SweeTart varieties. He sells good beer, makes good cocktails, offers good bar food, all delivered in an archetypical south-city space. Smith's gussied up the room, but he's not above selling Dirt McGirt Rap Snacks.
Then, out of the blue, two drunken hoosiers stumble in. Why do mustachioed losers always sit next to us? With all the space at the other end of the bar, why so close? "What you reading?" asks the barely upright one. "Where Dead Voices Gather." Blank stare. "What's it about?" "White men who used to dress up like black men and sing." Blank stare. Gears grinding. Then, a thoughtful response: "Mmph." You can take the south city out of the bar, but you can't take the bar out of south city.